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‘It’s gone haywire’: When COVID-19 arrived in rural America

May 6, 2020 GMT
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Downtown Dawson, Ga., is reflected in the window of a local barber shop where a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. is on display on Friday, April 17, 2020. Across the county, as this state and others rush to throw open the doors on restaurants and stores, those here describe themselves as a cautionary tale of what happens when the virus seeps into American's most vulnerable communities, quietly at first then with breathtaking savagery. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
1 of 29
Downtown Dawson, Ga., is reflected in the window of a local barber shop where a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. is on display on Friday, April 17, 2020. Across the county, as this state and others rush to throw open the doors on restaurants and stores, those here describe themselves as a cautionary tale of what happens when the virus seeps into American's most vulnerable communities, quietly at first then with breathtaking savagery. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

DAWSON, Ga. (AP) — The reverend approached the makeshift pulpit and asked the Lord to help him make sense of the scene before him: two caskets, side by side, in a small-town cemetery busier now than ever before.

Rev. Willard O. Weston had already eulogized other neighbors lost to COVID-19, and he would do more. But this one stood as a symbol to him of all they had lost. The matching caskets, one powder blue, one white and gold, contained a couple married 30 years who died two days apart, unaware of the other’s fate.

As the world’s attention was fixated on the horrors in Italy and New York City, the per capita death rates in counties in the impoverished southwest corner of Georgia quietly climbed to among the worst in the county. The devastation here is a cautionary tale of what happens when the virus seeps into communities on the losing end of the nation’s most intractable inequalities: these counties are rural, mostly African American and poor.

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This story was produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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More than a quarter of people in Terrell County live in poverty, the local hospital shuttered decades ago, and businesses have been closing for years, sending many young and able fleeing for cities. Those left behind are sicker and more vulnerable, with more of the underlying health conditions that make coronavirus so deadly.

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At least 21 people have died in this county, and dozens more in the neighboring rural communities. Of the 10 counties with the highest death rate per capita in America, half are in rural southwest Georgia.

By nearly every measure, coronavirus patients are faring worse in rural Georgia than almost anywhere else in America, according to researchers at Emory University in Atlanta. Rural people and African Americans are more likely to work in jobs not conducive to social distancing and have historically less access to health care. Georgia has lost seven rural hospitals in the last decade. Nine counties don’t have a doctor, according to the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals. The same places have higher rates of chronic diseases: In the southwest region of Georgia, 16 percent have diabetes, twice as high as Atlanta.

At first, Benjamin Tolbert just felt a malaise; he had no appetite. Within a couple days, he could barely stand. His son, Desmond, took him to the hospital. Benjamin’s wife, Nellie Mae, who everyone called Pollye Ann, got sick the next day.

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Everyone in town knew Benjamin, 58, as a hard worker. He had worked for 28 years at a Tyson Foods plant. He and his wife had been together 30 years. He was mild-mannered, but she found a joke in everything. She was a minister, sang gospel and danced, wildly, joyfully. Benjamin would hang back, but Pollye Ann would pull him up and he’d dance along with her, said their niece Latasha Taylor.

Both were diabetic, Pollye Ann had had heart valve surgery, Benjamin had been on dialysis. Pollye Ann’s sister, Katherine Taylor Peters, often got dialysis treatments with him. They were a close-knit family: Peters lived just blocks away. Shortly after the Tolberts got sick, Peters did too. They soon sedated her and put her on a ventilator.

Much of the rest is a blur for Desmond and Latasha: calls from doctors and nurses, begging to see their parents but being told it was too dangerous.

“I couldn’t see them, I couldn’t talk to them,” said Desmond, 29.

Desmond was on the phone with a nurse as his mother took her last breath. Two days later, the call came from his father’s caregivers. They were apart, far from home, without their son at their sides.

All around them, neighbors were getting sick and dying.

“At this pace, you don’t get a chance to really take a deep breath from the previous death, and then you’re getting a call about another,” said Weston, the pastor who has eulogized a half-dozen neighbors. An hour before the Tolberts’ service he learned his own cousin, as close to him as a brother, had died. “I’ve had some moments over the last two or three weeks, and I’ve questioned the good Lord: What is this? How can we continue?”

In normal times, the Tolbert family’s funeral would have drawn a packed house. Pollye Ann was a minister at Weston’s church. She could deliver testimony like no one he’d ever seen: she was like a freight train, he recalled, slow at first then faster, faster, faster. People were drawn to her.

Instead it was just him and a handful of mourners in the cemetery staring at two caskets. He read from scripture and told their son that he’d never walk alone.

He worried his instinct to comfort would overtake his knowledge that he couldn’t, so he walked away. He felt guilty. He prayed for God to take that guilt away.

There was good news, too: Pollye Ann Tolbert’s sister survived weeks on a ventilator.

The first thing she asked when she woke was how her sister and brother-in-law were doing.

“I had to tell her that while she was sleeping, her sister and brother-in-law left us forever,” Latasha said.

Peters told her daughter that the last thing she remembered was a doctor on the phone, telling her that her sister wasn’t going to make it.

She had hoped it was all a bad dream.

Then she woke up.